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Taxes

With the holidays approaching, many companies are preparing their bonus checks. However, some employees who are looking forward to their bonuses are also concerned about tax consequences.

I gave up this “extra” part of my corporate pay, in exchange for the benefit of working for myself, when I left my day job a few years ago. An annual bonus was certainly an appreciated part of my income, however. However, if this year’s holiday season is anything like years past, I know I can expect people around me to complain that they’d rather not receive a bonus. But why?

There is a widely-held belief that the extra income from a bonus — which is not really extra, just a variable aspect of compensation — supposedly bumps them into a higher tax bracket. This, they believe, is bad. They believe that they could potentially owe the government a higher tax rate on all of their income. This is incorrect and represents confusion about how marginal tax rates work.

These misconceptions and the resulting complaints are intensified when the bonus check arrives. Typically, they’ll see a net payment amount representing only a fraction of the gross income listed on their pay stub. This only fuels the anti-bonus fire.

What a Bonus Actually Does to Taxes

For most taxpayers, the IRS treats bonus income the same as regular income. All taxable W-2 income gets added together in one box when you file your federal tax return forms. The same tax rates apply to each dollar shown, whether it came from your 9-to-5, your side hustle, weekend babysitting, or a holiday bonus.

There is a catch, though, and is the reason this confusion runs rampant. While the IRS doesn’t discriminate between regular pay and bonus pay, employers often do.

How Employers Calculate Taxes

Employers can choose between two primary methods of withholding federal taxes from bonus or supplemental income. This applies when said “extra” income is given to the employee in a check or direct deposit separate from regular income.

Option 1: The employer may withhold a flat 25% for federal income taxes from the bonus payment. If the employee receives over $1 million in bonus payments in one year, the employer can withhold 25% of the first $1 million in addition to 35% from the amount over $1 million.

Option 2: The employer may add the bonus payment to the most recent regular income payment. They would then determine the standard withholding based on tax tables and the sum of the two payments. Then, subtract the amount already withheld from the most recent regular income payment, and withhold the rest from the bonus.

*Option 3: The employer may base withholding on the sum of the bonus and regular pay using the standard withholding tables. *This option is for employers who choose to combine bonus compensation with regular compensation in one payment, check or direct deposit, without any differentiation between the two types of income.

Regardless of the method the employer chooses, bonus income and regular income are grouped together when you file your taxes. The IRS will refund any overpayment and will collect any underpayment.

Outliers

One interesting exception to the rule of bonuses being taxed the same as all other income applies to hedge fund and other investment managers. This type of income is known as carried interest. Investment managers often take their bonuses from investment gains, and these can be taxed at the long-term capital gains rate of 15%. This rate is usually significantly lower than their marginal tax rates.

My Final Advice

Don’t be afraid of earning that bonus or more money in general. Your employer might withhold more of the check for taxes than you’re used to, but it will even out when you file your taxes.

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401(k) plans are the primary retirement savings vehicle for the middle class, particularly as more employers enroll new employees automatically in the plans. And for those who have the ability to maximize their contribution each year, the new calendar year offers an additional opportunity.

In 2015 and 2016, the maximum contribution limits were the same. For retirement accounts — which include 401(k) accounts, 403(b) accounts, most 457 plans, and Thrift Savings Plans — these stayed at $18,000. In case you were holding out for an increase, I have bad news: for 2017, these contribution limits have remain unchanged.

Of course, savers and investors aged 50 or older can take advantage of a catch-up contribution. This effectively increases the limit for those approaching traditional retirement age. In 2017, taxpayers who meet this age-based criterion can contribute an additional $6,000 above the regular maximum of $18,000. As a result, if you are 50 or older, you can contribute a maximum of $24,000 into these tax-advantaged accounts. (This is also the same as the past two years.)

Resource: Maxed out your 401k or looking for better investment options? Check out an IRA at WealthFront.

The total contribution limit, including employer contributions, has changed, however. It is now at $54,000, up from last year’s $53,000.

The benefits of a 401(k) plan are, by design, directed primarily at people who most need an incentive to save for retirement. This may help contain the tax benefits within the middle class. The government does this by applying a maximum level of compensation to which matching benefits apply.

In 2017, only the first $270,000 in an employee’s compensation over the course of 2017 may be applied to the company’s matching formula. That income limit has grown from $265,000 in 2016.  That’s a sufficiently high maximum and should cover more than just the middle class.

To illustrate, if a company matches an employee’s contributions at a rate of 50% up to a limit of 5% the salary, an employee with a $100,000 salary deferring $15,000 will receive at most a $5,000 matching contribution (5% of the full $100,000 salary). If an employee at the same company ears $400,000 in compensation throughout the year, deferring $15,000, the matching contribution will be $13,500 (5% of the $270,000 maximum compensation, not $20,000). There are additional rules in place that require a company to balance benefits between highly compensated employees (those earning $120,000 or more) and all others.

Beginning in 2013, new regulations required 401(k) plan administers to explicitly state in quarterly statements how much investors are paying in fees. Previously, this information was not easy to discover. While you could (and should) look at the various prospectuses in search of management expenses fees or expense ratios, expressed as a percentage of assets, there were at least two obstacles:

  • The expense ratios force you to do your own calculations to determine how much money you’re spending in fees.
  • Not all fees are included in expense ratios. Some funds, like annuity-based mutual funds, don’t have expense ratios but certainly have fees.

To maximize your 401(k) contribution in 2017, spread the $18,000 across the number of paychecks you plan to receive throughout the year. That’s a contribution of $1,500 each month, $750 twice a month, $692 every two weeks, or $346 a week for those age 49 or younger. The calculation for those over 50 who want to max the contribution are $2,000 per month, $1,000 twice a month, $923 every two weeks, or $461 a week.

If your contributions are recorded in the form of percentages, don’t forget to change your contribution to take into account raises and bonuses. If you are expecting your company to match your contributions at some level, and you reach your 401(k) contribution limit before your last paycheck, you may miss out on free money.

The following table illustrates the change in 401(k) contribution limits over the past several years.

Year 401(k)
Maximum
Catch-Up
Contribution
Maximum
Allocation
2017 $18,000 $6,000 $54,000
2016 $18,000 $6,000 $53,000
2015 $18,000 $6,000 $53,000
2014 $17,500 $5,500 $52,000
2013 $17,500 $5,500 $51,000
2012 $17,000 $5,500 $50,000
2011 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2010 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2009 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2008 $15,500 $5,000 $46,000

Photo: urban_data

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As tax year 2016 comes to a close, your focus is probably on filing that tax return after the new year (remember that your deadline is April 17, 2017). The IRS may end up confusing some people, though, as they just released the tax brackets, deduction limits, and marginal rates for tax year 2017.

Keep in mind that these numbers are not what you will be using to file your taxes this coming spring. The taxes you file in early 2017 will be for tax year 2016 —  if you want to look at those numbers, you can find them on the 2016 tax page.

The numbers shown below are for the taxes that you will incur from Jan-Dec 2017, and then file in spring 2018. They can help you now, though, as you plan your finances and income withholdings for the next calendar year.

What are the 2017 marginal tax rates?

As in most years past, the limits have been bumped a bit for 2017, to account for inflation. The effect is minimal, though, and you won’t honestly feel too much of a difference.

Let’s look at the chart:

[click to continue…]

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Can you believe we’re already in September? The year has flown by, and IRS Tax Year 2016 will soon be coming to a close. While your filing deadline isn’t until April 17, 2017 (the 15th will fall on a Saturday), now is the perfect time to begin thinking about your taxes, maxing out your retirement contributions, and tying off of deductible expenses/donations.

So you can plan ahead, here are the IRS tax rates for your 2016 earnings, along with a little insight. Many of these have changed from last year, as they will almost always do in order to avoid a “bracket creep.” This is what happens when you get bumped up to the next tax bracket based on inflation, and not because you are actually earning more.

If you work for an employer, you’re probably very familiar with the taxes that are automatically withdrawn from your check each month. You are essentially prepaying your tax bill. Depending on how much you make before midnight on December 31, the number of exemptions you qualify for, etc., you will either owe additional money to the IRS or get a refund for overpayment. (Unless you’re a tax whiz who calculated your payments perfectly all year, of course, in which case you’re welcome to do mine, too!)

Curious how much the highest earners will pay in tax year 2016? The top marginal rate will again be 39.6 percent.

What are the 2016 marginal tax rates?

For those not well-versed in tax structure (which includes most people, I’d imagine), there’s a common misconception. Many people are afraid to earn more money because they don’t want to be bumped up into the next tax bracket. They don’t want to have all of their income taxed at an even higher rate than they’re already paying. Well, this is not actually how it works, as your effective tax rate and marginal tax rates are often very different. The only income tax applied at the highest rate, is on that income above and beyond the lower limits for that rate.

Confused? Let me explain further.

Pretent you make $50,000 this year. Or $5,000. Or even $500,000… the number is arbitrary. No matter what, your first $9,275 of earned income (if you file as a single individual, not jointly), will be taxed at the lowest tax rate: 10 percent. It doesn’t matter how many zeros are in that Income Earned box… your first $9,275 is taxed at 10 percent. This is called the “lowest tax bracket.” To determine your effective tax rate, you divide the amount of total tax owed by your entire income — if you don’t earn enough to get out of that lowest bracket, your marginal tax rate and your effective tax rate will be the same. Again, 10 percent.

This dynamic is why Warren Buffet says his secretary ‘pays more tax than he does.’ He earns a large portion of his income from investments, which are taxed at a lower percentage and therefore drop his average (effective) tax rate. As most of his secretary’s income (presumably) comes from wages, her effective tax rate is higher. I would still imagine that his actual tax bill is considerably larger than hers, however.

Let’s look at the chart:

[click to continue…]

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2015 Federal Income Tax Brackets and Marginal Rates

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2014 Federal Income Tax Brackets and Marginal Rates

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Anyone who likes getting a look at their future tax expenses might be interested in seeing what next year’s tax brackets and tax rates will be. The IRS has now announced the official rates and brackets for 2014, although the numbers have been predicted for months because the IRS uses a simple process of inflation […]

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5 Responsible Uses for Your Tax Refund

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For most citizens of the United States, tax season is over. There’s no longer a need to run around gathering documents. You’ll stop seeing television commercials for TurboTax and H&R Block in which each insinuates the other is a deficient company. You can stop thinking about government’s wasteful spending and income redistribution — which always […]

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